The sermon for week May 24, 2011
Service of Thanksgiving for William Henry Chidester
Isaiah 58:6-12; Matthew 14:13-21
I want to acknowledge, recognize, and thank all those who have made the last few days flow as smoothly as possible: youth who bravely led worship here on Sunday morning, those who are ushering, parking cars, baking cookies, singing in the choir and all those things that just happen over these last days without needing to be asked. All of this at work is evidence of some what I want to reflect on today Ė how Bill has taught us well how to be community and the presence of God for one another.
If youíve ever been in Billís office here at church, you might have noticed that there are just a few pictures on the walls. And except for his framed ordination certificate from, May 18, 1974, just over 37 years ago, Iím not sure he was actually responsible for hanging any of them. No one ever heard Bill mention watching HGTV. Bill wasnít one for worrying about such exotic items like dťcor or clothes or accessories. If clothes were approved by Sharon or Sara, he was good. Billís idea of decorating was his St. Louis Cardinal pillows on his reclining chair.
One of the few pictures in his office is a picture I gave him several years ago and then after several months of watching it sit on the floor, I hung it for him on the wall behind his desk. I bought the picture when we were in the midst of the Learning Team leading our congregation through the process of discerning our vision and mission for this worshipping community. The picture is one of a set of two pictures and is a mosaic picture of bread and fish with words from Lukeís account of the feeding of the five thousand. The matching picture hangs in my living room at home and is of a water and a pitcher with words from Romans about Godís love being passed on to us. Water and food. Font and table. Baptism and Communion. As our congregational vision statement proclaims: Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples. Water and table.
And so today it seemed right to me to read the story of the Feeding of the 5000. It is a story that was very important to the gospel writers. Some version of this story is told 6 different times in the four gospels. And it is a story that was at the heart of Billís experience of God and understanding of the good news. Billís central belief about God was symbolized by table and communion. Not about the symbolism of the bread and cup. Not about memorial or sinfulness or denial. But about welcome. About hospitality. About a world where there is enough for everyone and where all eat and are filled. About sharing and openness. About the kingdom of God where those from east and west, north and south are invited to table. Everyone Ė the poor, the hungry, the broken, the lost Ė you and me Ė we are all welcomed in Godís realm. As disciples of Jesus, Bill understood that our calling was to be those who invited and who welcomed to table and who feast upon heavenly food. Because, for Bill, these actions are how we respond as disciples. Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples.
Hear now from Matthew 14, verses 13-21, Matthewís version of the Feeding of the 5000.
Bill and I were only able to have a couple of conversations about his funeral service. During the first time we talked about it, I asked him if there were any scriptures he wanted read. He said no Ė that he left that up to me. Hoping to narrow the entire Bible down a bit, I asked him what themes he wanted me to focus on. ďCommunity,Ē is all he said. That didnít really narrow it down. But it did make perfect sense. For Bill spent these last 25 years of his life working to create a community of Godís children that was faithful to its calling to be the body of Christ, to be the hands of God in the world. The centrality of community to Bill is seen in the one hymn he requested we sing today, We are Your People. Bill deeply believed in the giftedness of each person and that everyone who made their way through the doors and into this sanctuary had a reason for being here. Bill had the ability to see past outer appearance and see the child of God that each of us is no matter where on the journey we are. Each person was welcomed as a part of this worshipping community and invited to serve in whatever ways possible.
One of Billís favorite authors was Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who shifted from pediatric oncology to being a pioneer in offering spiritual and psychological support to people with life-threatening illnesses. Bill presided over 279 weddings and led 410 funerals over the span of his 37 years in ministry. And if you had attended any of those services in the last 10 years, there is a really good chance you heard a story from Remen. So it seemed only right to share a story from Kitchen Table Wisdom, Remenís first book given to Bill by Phyllis Palmer. In one of her stories, Remen tells of a workshop for physicians that Joseph Campbell offered on the experience of the sacred. Remen writes,
ďAt one point in Campbellís presentation he showed us slide after slide of sacred images: paintings, statues, pottery, tapestries, and stained glass from many places and times. I remember one of those vividly. It was a particularly fine example of Shiva Nataraja, a ĎDancing Shivaí from the Lieden Museum in Zurich. Shiva is the Hindu name for the masculine aspect of GodÖ. (In the slide,) Shiva, the god, dances in a ring of bronze flames. The hands of his many arms hold symbols of the abundance of spiritual life. As he dances, one of his feet is lifted high (but) the other (foot) is supported by the naked back of a little man crouched down in the dust, giving all his attention to a leaf he is holding between his hands.Ē
Remen continues, ďPhysicians are trained observers. Despite the great beauty of the dancing god, all of us had focused on the little man and the leaf and we asked Joseph Campbell about him. Campbell began to laugh. Still laughing, he told us that the little man is a person so caught up in the study of the material world that he doesnít even know that the living God is dancing on his back.
Bill spent his ministry trying to help us transcend the limitations of this world, the limitations of our bodies and minds, of our own individual sight. He invited us to look beyond our normal horizons in order to see our God dancing on our backs, in our hearts, in our lives, in our homes. This is not to say that Bill overlooked the material world. His commitment to environmental conservation and stewardship were central to our congregational focus and ownership of these issues. His love for his family was tangible and he loved being a part of this world with tennis and peaches and cottages. But Bill worked hard to help us know and experience the mystery of God, the God we too often miss in our harried and success-driven world when we are often looking in the wrong direction. He didnít care about pictures on the wall. He cared about the picture of God you carried in your heart and whether you missed that God dancing in your midst.
Each time the story is told in scripture, the narrative of the feeding of the thousands foreshadows the Last Supper and communion. Jesus takes loaf and fish, looks up to heaven, blesses, breaks, gives. And it is in those very actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving that the disciples and all those hungry people see God in a new way. All ate and were filled. As the prophet Isaiah describes, light will break forth, healing will spring up, and the Lord will guide us when we act as God would act. Loose the bonds of injustice. Free the oppressed. Share bread. House the homeless. Clothe the naked. Do this and light will rise from the darkness. Godís presence is made known in our compassionate actions for healing and justice. Where we love, God is present, dancing in our midst. Take. Bless. Break. Give. The mystery of God revealed in our midst.
In order to see God dancing most clearly in our midst, Bill pointed to community. Bill believed and taught and enacted that it was in community that we become most fully aware of the mystery of God. To be about God is to be in relationship. Bill knew that where two or three were gathered in Christís name that in those relationships, in that conversation, in the caring, the compassion that was shared that we would see our seemingly elusive God. It is why Bill made extraordinary efforts to be with families before surgery or at the time of death. In those times when we are most in need of being reassured of Godís presence, Bill would come to make community, to listen, to pray, to point to God and assure you through his own brokenness and compassion that God was with you. In these last days, we have come together in worship, in visiting, in prayer to do just that Ė to experience Godís presence in our brokenness and compassion as we have been community of two or three or more gathered.
The last ministry that Bill was working on was forming an Open And Affirming Ė an ONA Ė study group. Bill felt this was his last piece of unfinished business amongst us and grieved that he didnít have enough time to see it through. Bill was committed to the Church being truly open to all of Godís children. That we may ALL be one. For it is when we are one in community that we have the opportunity to experience God most fully. But Bill was committed to having the congregation engage in the ONA process not because there was a foregone conclusion of how the congregation would speak, but because he was committed to the dialogue: to the honest and vulnerable and challenging conversations that the congregation would engage through the ONA process. Regardless of the outcome, Bill knew that the work of this community in talking about issues of welcoming and hospitality would reveal God to us in new and beautiful ways.
I need to be honest, and I guess it would be of no surprise to you to say that I have struggled to write the message for today. But itís been a struggle for obvious reasons like the basic fact that Bill meant something different to each person here and it is impossible to capture everything Bill did and everything he was to everyone. But I have struggled the most because I keep heard Bill whispering in my ear: Itís not about me. Itís about God. How many times did those of us who are a part of this worshipping community hear Bill say that on a Sunday morning? Itís not about you. Itís about God. Itís not about what you want. Itís about what God wants. Itís only because God is love that we can love. Because God welcomes, we welcome. We are children of God. We are disciples because God first claimed us in the waters of baptism. So if God feeds the hungry, we are called to feed the hungry. If God is a God of justice, then we are to be about the work of justice.
And so the problem I have is that I struggle to talk about God or at least my experience of God without talking about Bill. For me, just as it is for, I am guessing, so many of you, it is because of Bill pointing to the God dancing on my back week after week that I have caught glimmers of God. It is through Billís words and life, his actions and compassion, that I have been able to once again form words for the mystery of the sacred present in all of life. It is because of Bill constantly pointing us towards one another and out into the world that we have experiences of the great beauty of God dancing on my back and on your back and everyoneís back.
For those who are a part of this worshipping community, it is hard to imagine doing this church thing without Bill. It is hard to imagine this church ever being the same again. Because it wonít be. Our experience of this community of Godís children serving and learning and worshipping together will never be the same. Because we will no longer have the leader who through his own vulnerability and compassion and convictions pointed to God in the unique way that only he could.
But I also know that Bill has taught us all well. For over 25 years, Bill has taught us how to be community for one another, to be the presence of the divine for the world. And so even though it will never be the same, we will continue to do what we do on Sunday mornings and every day and night of the week. We will do and be church together. We will gather together and be community. We will be the people of God. We will come to worship and sing and pray. In and out of these walls, we will serve and love and pound nails and cry out for justice. We will knit and crochet and cook and speak and listen and argue and forgive. We will reach out and hold fast. We will heal and challenge. We will take, bless, break and share. We will be community, we will be the body of Christ. And so we will see God. We will point out to one another the God we see in our midst, dancing in joy and in love.
Thanks be to God for the life, the gift, the husband, father, brother, grandfather, pastor, mentor, colleague, and friend we have all known in William Henry. Saint of the Church. Brother in Christ. Child of God. Amen.
Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Riverhead Trade, 1997.